Wednesday, May 27, 2009
City Hall corruption scandal grows: feds charge more inspectors
No, it's not some little offshoot of the county investigation. Cleveland City Hall has its own corruption probe on its hands -- an FBI sting of the city's building and housing department, complete with lots of video and audio surveillance and an undercover agent posing as a New York businessman.
If the charges are true, these building inspectors deserve their own scandal.
Federal prosecutors, FBI agents, and Mayor Frank Jackson held a press conference today to reveal that two more Cleveland building inspectors face extortion charges. That's a total of six current or former inspectors busted, out of 75 total in the department.
"They've now forfeited their careers, their reputations, and possibly their freedom for amounts of money that each inspector would now tell you were simply not worth it," said Frank Figliuzzi, the FBI Cleveland division's agent in charge. (The alleged bribes ranged from $200 to about $1,500.)
The six men may not be the last. Today's new charges mark the end of the federal investigation of Building and Housing, said Bill Edwards, acting U.S. Attorney for northern Ohio -- but the FBI is giving the Cleveland police more information that may lead to state charges or disciplinary action against more city employees. Figliuzzi also asked anyone "victimized by a building inspector demanding bribes" to call the FBI at (216) 522-1400.
The two men charged today, Juan Alejandro and James McCullough (pictured), have been suspended without pay, the mayor said. They're accused of manipulating violation notices to lower the prices of homes. (See today's press release here, as a pdf.)
I wonder how many businesses the six alleged extortionists chased out of Cleveland. So strong was the city building department's reputation for obstructing construction projects that (if you believe the feds) some of the accused inspectors seem to have played off of it to extort bribes. Edwards said they took cash for "speeding things up, making things easier, getting things done quicker."
That suggests the norm was slow and difficult! So the city's inefficiency created an opportunity for corruption: efficiency was rare, but buyable with cash.
Cleveland so badly needs new businesses and new homes. But if the feds are right -- and they spent three years investigating these cases, collecting what Edwards called "a lot" of audio and video surveillance -- then some of the accused inspectors shook down the contractors working on new businesses, including (how's this for heartless?) Sweethearts Ice Cream on Payne Avenue. If they did so, they not only risked their own reputations, but the city's; they undermined Cleveland's rebirth.
"I'm disturbed, as I know you are, by any dishonest behavior or wrongdoing by any public employee," Jackson said. "The violation of public trust is something we cannot tolerate."
The mayor said the police would investigate and the administration would look for structural changes in building and housing to make it more difficult for inspectors to abuse their power. He also said he planned to issue a new city-wide policy clearing up any "grey areas" and making it "very clear to people what is proper behavior and what is not proper behavior."
One reporter aggressively asked the mayor and Edwards why taxpayers should trust City Hall, since the scandal happened on Jackson's watch. But Jackson said the FBI kept him and the police informed of the investigation, and the city backed off to let the feds take the lead. At one point, Edwards told the reporter he believed the Jackson administration would take whatever steps it had to now.